One day when Albert went to the rock in the marsh - the new mall wasn't really in the marsh, so they had technically saved more of it, but they left the caution tape up anyway, just as a reminder - Brad Stand was already there.
He looked kind of confused, and he still seemed to be wearing his same shirt from the day Albert burned his jet-skis and they beat each other up in the elevator at the benefit concert. Albert was a little worried at first that he'd just been wandering around like a bum since then. He was even wearing the same tie. His hair was messed up, too.
But when Albert got closer he could see he must have changed in between because, for one thing, the shirt was way too clean for Brad to have been wearing it for three whole months, and for another Brad didn't look completely insane or even all that upset, just thoughtful.
Albert climbed under the caution tape and sat down on the rock next to him with a glance to see if it was all right. Brad glanced back at him, then looked back out over the marsh. "Hey," Albert said.
"Hey," said Brad. He also definitely didn't smell like he hadn't changed in three months. In fact, he must have just come from the shower, because his hair was wet and he smelled like shower gel and some kind of aftershave. Albert recognized the smell from a couple of times before - in the restaurant, at the existential detectives' mixer, in the elevator at the concert.
"How you doing?" Albert asked.
"Good, good, pretty good," said Brad. He scratched his head and frowned a little. His sleeves were unbuttoned, so the cuffs flopped back when he did that. His forearms were sunburned. "How's it going for you? Back at Open Spaces?"
Albert considered. "Pretty good, although we didn't manage to save the woods."
"No," Brad said glumly, and Albert felt guilty for bringing it up.
"We don't get a lot of response to our letter-writing campaigns so I decided to write to some different congresspeople - "
"From other states," Albert explained.
"Oh, different. Is that going to work?"
"I figure they're still in Congress," said Albert.
"How's that working?"
"Really great. I got my first response that wasn't a form letter."
There was a little silence and not very much happened. The grass rustled. It was pretty. Albert noticed that Brad was probably wearing the same pants, too - shiny dark blue suit pants.
"So did you get your job back or - " Albert started to say.
At the same time, Brad started to say, "So did you ever - "
"Go ahead," said Albert.
"No, you go ahead," Brad replied, and Albert couldn't tell if he was arguing or being polite. He wasn't smiling, though, he was looking at Albert intently. He had turned his head around and everything.
"No," Albert said, and then changed his mind. "Okay. If you don't mind. No. You go."
"Did you ever decide about the whole tree thing?" said Brad. "The tree, the rays of acceptance, beating your head in with an ax? Why do the heads keep growing back?"
"I know! I never figured that out!" Albert said. "Why do the heads keep growing back?"
Brad grinned and shook his head. "I don't know. I did notice there's less of the head-chopping, eventually. Or there's less of your head. Other people keep showing up, though."
"Oh, so you don't have to hit me with the ax so much anymore?"
"I don't have to hit you with the ax very often anymore, no. But what does Caterine have against the tree?"
Albert rolled his eyes. "I know, right? If the tree thing helps you, what's the big deal? Why can't you look at the big picture."
"So you like the tree thing? You don't think it's just a meaningless tranquilizer?" Brad asked.
"Are you having sex with her?" Albert burst out, and then he realized that Brad had said something. "Sorry, what was the question?"
"I - what - with Caterine? Why, are you having sex with her?"
"Not anymore," said Albert. "She used me to show me and Tommy the inevitability of human drama."
"No," said Brad, looking at him like he had grown an additional head without even losing the first one. "I am not having sex with Caterine Vauban."
That was when Albert realized it had been a pretty weird question. "Oh," he said. He thought about saying "Good," but he wasn't sure what he would say after that, or even what he meant by it, and he didn't think 'because I've been thinking about having sex with you' would fit very seamlessly into the conversation. "Okay. Uh, did you ever get your job back?" He nodded at Brad's dress shirt and tie.
Brad stopped giving him that puzzled and incredulous look and looked down at what he was wearing, instead. He seemed a little surprised. "Oh, no, this is - I'm working across town now, an architecture firm."
"Oh." Oops - he was going to have to think of something to say besides 'oh'.
"I didn't like your poetry," Brad said, sort of quietly. He sounded embarrassed to admit it, which was kind of funny considering how many people knew that.
"That's okay," said Albert. The wind ruffled through the grass some more, and it was still pretty. They didn't talk some more, and that was all right. The sun was getting lower in the sky, shining through the caution tape and casting shadows from the few remaining trees. That was nice. Brad's sleeve had flopped back away from his hand and wrist again and Albert noticed his wrists some more and thought about having sex with him some more. That was all right, too.
He turned to look at Brad, grinning. "Hey, Brad," he said.
"Do you know what happens in a meadow at dusk?"
Brad looked a little suspicious, but he was smiling back. "What? You mean the sun goes down and it - are we talking about a specific meadow, here?"
"No, no, just a meadow. It happens in every meadow. Do you know what happens in a meadow at dusk?"
"Yeah, it's pretty..." Brad said, and then he paused, and his smile widened. "No. I don't know."
Albert got up from the rock. "Do you want to see?"
Brad grinned at him and jumped down after him. "Sure."
Brad didn't say anything about the fact that there was plenty of grass around the rock or that it was already pretty much dusk, he just followed Albert. They set off at a run, and raced each other for a while. First Brad got ahead, then Albert, then Brad, and soon they were laughing as they ran.
They really were kind of the same, Albert thought, as he tripped over his own foot and Brad lunged forward and grabbed his arm, and their eyes met, but they just laughed again and kept running. By the time they got to the meadow Albert had been thinking of the sun was halfway past the horizon and they were both winded.
"Is this it?" Brad said, leaning his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Albert nodded. He was still catching his breath, too.
They were in the middle of a group of trees. It was a pretty small meadow, small enough that when he'd first walked into it Albert had felt like he was discovering a secret. There was some trash scattered around, like an empty plastic bottle and a crumpled McDonald's bag and some metal bottle caps embedded in the dirt, and a piece of cardboard lying on the grass, but it wasn't really too bad.
Brad laid down on his back on the ground and heaved a sigh. Then he frowned, without even opening his eyes. He lifted his head to jerk his tie off with one or two hard yanks and tossed it away from him, then dropped his head down again. His hair was probably still wet from the shower, but now it was wet at the temples with sweat, too.
Albert flopped down on the ground next to him and rolled onto his back.
"So this is what happens in the meadow at dusk?" said Brad after a minute.
"You should probably open your eyes," Albert told him. "And maybe we should try to stop laughing." Except, of course, that is the worst thing to say when you are trying to stop laughing, and they both started laughing again as soon as he said it.
The sun got a little lower. Albert started being able to feel the coolness of the ground even through his shirt and his jacket, which probably meant there was going to be a dirty spot on the back of his jacket. They gradually stopped laughing, mainly because they were out of breath.
"I'm not getting up, so I hope it's okay to watch this from the ground," Brad said.
"Will you just be quiet and wait," Albert said, remembering briefly why he'd wanted to chop Brad up with a machete.
Brad lifted his hands to show he surrendered, which Albert could see by turning his head, even though it was a weird angle since they were lying with their heads so close together and when he turned most of what he saw was the side of Brad's face. Then he remembered wanting to have sex with Brad - even though, technically, he'd never forgotten that - and he turned his head back slowly to watch the sun set again. It was pretty nice, actually. He'd never been in a meadow at dusk with Brad Stand.
He was busy trying to think of a poem about it, and repeating the lines to himself so he wouldn't forget them, the next time Brad turned his head. So he was a little slow about turning his head, and he was surprised when their noses bumped.
"Ow," said Albert.
Brad didn't move. He just said, "Hey, have you thought about how the fundamental interconnectedness of life and the meaningless chaos of that interconnectedness apply to meadows at dusk?"
Albert wondered if Brad was deliberately trying to insult him, or possibly making fun of him, although Brad had sounded perfectly serious. "Of course," he said. "Ultimately the transcendental experience of nature is always an isolated incident and the feelings of profundity evoked by its beauty and majesty are an illusion, but at the same time that illusion connects us back to other people through our shared awe."
Brad nodded thoughtfully. It made the bridge of his nose bump against Albert's, and Albert almost went cross-eyed to see that he was frowning that way he did, with a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows and his mouth turning down. It was probably making two dimples in his chin, too. "Okay," he said, "just checking."
Albert liked the frown, although he hated to admit that he thought it was cute. He couldn't help that Brad Stand was an attractive man or that he found his frowning cute, of course - it wasn't even weird, Albert told himself, since the frown was undeniably cute. But he still hated to admit it. He was distracted by these thoughts, which was why all he said was "Oh" again.
"Yeah," said Albert, even though he wasn't completely listening, and he didn't know how Brad expected people to listen to him when he kept bumping their noses with his nose.
"Do you think it's always the same thing that happens in a meadow at dusk?" Brad said, quietly.
"I don't know," said Albert. The dusk was almost over, anyway. The shadows of the trees had merged together with the dark blue of the sky. there was almost no sunlight shining on them anymore.
"I think I know," Brad said, and moved. Albert thought he was nodding at first and he tried to move his head back to keep from getting bumped, but he couldn't really without turning his face completely away, and anyway, Brad's hand was in the way, then, and he wasn't nodding at all, he was kissing Albert.
Albert kissed him back, so hard their noses bumped together again, and Brad grabbed Albert's face with both hands and rolled on top of him and kept kissing him, and they missed the rest of the sunset.
Albert had always said that everything happened in a meadow at dusk.